Life is sweet for the Alan Sugar of sport

From ten-pin bowling to Fish O Mania, the Essex man for all seasons is king of the niche sports – and 'niche is the future'
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The Independent Online

Ubiquitous is a word that might have been coined for Barry Hearn. He is everywhere, and into everything. It used to be said he could not pass a pie without sticking his finger into it. He still can't, and he continues to pull out the plums.

You name it, he's done it, from boxing to bowls via an assortment of telegenic activities, some of which he has jazzed up and reinvented; others he has simply invented.

Hearn was an accountant who first made his money buying and selling snooker halls. Then in 1976 Steve Davis made his life interesting and he founded Matchroom Sport, the promotional empire which has cornered the niche market.

He is currently the chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation and Leyton Orient FC, and his portfolio also embraces snooker, ten-pin bowling, fishing, pool and poker. Plus a bit of golf. The Essex man for all seasons.

"My timing's always been good but I don't know quite why," he says, surrounded in his airy Brentwood office by billboards and pictorial reminders of his 35 years of entrepreneurial exploits. "I think someone upstairs likes me. Even to the point of taking over darts six or seven years ago. Suddenly it's become this massive business. Now we have the Prizefighter series, which I believe will save boxing. It's been hugely successful. It's just a bloody good, uncomplicated night's boxing.

"My people want entertainment. There are too many worries in the world. Too many things going on in your head with all these bankers and God knows what else, and people just want to have a great night out that's not too expensive, a bit of rock 'n' roll. This is particularly true of darts, which seems to be the one sport that's recession-proof."

Phil "The Power" Taylor is the leading light of a Matchroom stable which once embraced such fistic luminaries as the nihilistic Naseem Hamed and the rampant ego-tripper Chris Eubank. "I'd rather own brands than boxers," says Hearn. "Prizefighter is a brand. Eight fighters, three rounds. I say, 'Here's the prize money, do you want to fight or not? I don't want any options on you – no commercial ties'. That's why Martin Rogan, who won the heavyweight series, has gone on to fight for [Frank] Warren. Good luck to him.

"I see myself in a different role to the traditional promoter. My business is about selling my TV programmes around the world. I've sold thousands upon thousands of hours to hundreds of broadcasters. They come to me and ask me to fill their schedules. I've got nine sports, so I say, 'Here we are'. There isn't a broadcaster in the world that I haven't done a deal with.

"We are the biggest by far of the niche sport promoters and niche is the future," he adds. About eight per cent of Sky's sports output is Matchroom originated. "They've been the biggest single influence on my company and sport. The beauty of it is, I can go to them and say, 'Look, I want to turn this sport upside down' and they'll say, 'Go for it'."

He has staged world title fights and brought millions to the snooker table and the oche, but he reckons getting Fish O Mania live on Sky for six hours on a Saturday afternoon is his biggest coup. "Fish O Mania might mean nothing to you other than a bit of channel-hopping, but if you fish, you're one of thousands who can't take their eyes off the screen. We are great TV watchers and when a sport is really hot, it gets numbers, and snooker still does decent numbers. People say it's dying, but in comparison to some other sports it's doing rather well.

"We are all led by characters. Everything is a soap opera. When snooker had the famous eight, it was like watching Coronation Street with balls. Now the new kids are technically brilliant and are replacing the old campaigners. They haven't quite yet built their personalities, but give them time."

A staff of 40 busy themselves in the Matchroom mansion and globally he has a team of around 200. "The cleverest thing we ever did was stay private. It's a family business." His son Eddie runs the gambling and the golf – Matchroom own the PGA Pro Tour – and daughter Katie is one of his TV directors. His wife, Susan, breeds racehorses. "She's got about 30 and does well out of it. She reckons she's got the horses and I've got Leyton Orient, and that balances it out." Ah yes, little old Orient, the east London club he bought for a fiver and into which he has ploughed millions. Though maybe not for much longer, as he confesses it is "my only real failure".

He sighs: "Sometimes I think God says, 'I've looked after that Barry Hearn, he came from nowhere and the boy's done well, so let's throw Leyton Orient at him to level things off a bit'. I really thought we'd be in the Premiership by now. Our new manager, Geraint Williams, has done a good job and hopefully we are going to remain in League One next season.

"But football's getting harder all the time. The whole industry is fraught with problems. The game has lost its way, particularly at the top level. Our entire wage bill at Orient is £1.7 million a year, 35 grand a week – there's plenty of Premiership footballers earning that. I'm all for the top stars getting what they're worth, but that's a bit generous for a run-of-the-mill player. Take out the top four or five Premiership clubs and no one makes any money, yet there's millions and millions coming in. They're all locked into this system that doesn't have any economic validity.

"Running a football club is a stupid, horrible business. I only do it because I've been an Orient fan since I was 11, but I'd be out tomorrow if someone came to buy it who could take the club to a higher level. I'm not going to sink in bundles of my own personal wealth because I've worked too hard to throw it away on a football club. I'll keep them going until some Abramovich figure comes along and thinks they can do something with this little club.

"The great thing about Orient is that it doesn't owe any money. I don't like all these clubs going into administration. To my mind, going into administration is the same as athletes taking drugs. It's cheating. Leyton Orient will never go into administration, but at the same time I will safeguard my own investment by not going completely crazy."

So does he regret buying into football? "I don't regret anything because it's pointless. It's all in the past and I live for the future."

He will be 61 in June, and used to run marathons, but a few years ago he had a bit of heart trouble and now he's down to 10km. "I'm very competitive, even if I come last. Whatever it is, business or sport, I push myself.

"Every day I love. My heart rate goes up when I get to the office every morning because I'm excited about going to work, and I'm excited when I go home again and help my wife bring in the horses. Come to think of it, I must be very easily excited. I've always got something to look forward to, and that's the secret, because you live a lot longer. I used to have rows all the time when I was younger but now I tend to shrug my shoulders and say, 'So what?'."

Is there a sport he hasn't promoted that he would like to dabble with? "Yeah, table tennis. But different table tennis. I'd like to take it back to when it was an exciting sport. This foam bat has killed it because it is so spin-orientated and it doesn't lend itself to TV. I'm all about what looks good on the box. I want to go back to the old bat, which was just a lump of wood with a bobble on. You smacked it and it made that lovely noise. You could have rallies where you would stand 16 feet behind the table and smash it. That's when you had people watching." But wouldn't he have to get approval from the international federation? He leans back in his chair, laughs and sticks his middle finger in the air. "That's what I say to international federations. What's the first prize in a major table tennis competition? $10,000? Give them a quarter of a million and they'll find out where they want to play. That's all it's about. I say, 'If you want to be in my competition, these are the rules – my rules – and if you don't, bugger off'."

He says he is a great believer in dictators. Hearn may like to send himself up and say he's a pussycat these days, but he can still sound like the Sir Alan Sugar of sport. "Really? Nah. He's smaller than me and I'm not as hard – although I can do hard if you like." So how often does he say: "You're fired"? He is now on his fourth manager in 15 years at Orient but insists: "I rarely sack people. If you have to, you do, but frankly I would look at myself and say my selection process must have been faulty. Balls and heart are what I look for in a man. Brains are overrated."

Does Hearn ever see sports such as darts and snooker realising their Olympic ambitions? "I don't give a monkey's about the Olympics. I'm glad they're coming to London because it will be great, though there will be lots of problems, but in terms of professional sport, you can't eat medals. It's about making money.

"The Olympics are a bit of a smoke screen. 'Give 'em a medal, that'll keep 'em quiet', I don't work like that. Give 'em a million, that'll make 'em happier. As far as the Olympics are concerned, I'll let those who run them have their little bit of glory with their blazers on, but I'll just carry on as a commercial promoter, a television man. King of the niche sports."

Nice little hearners

Pot luck

Born 19 June 1948. Bus driver's son from Dagenham who washed cars for £10 a week while doing accountancy course. Made first fortune buying and selling snooker halls. Signed Steve Davis under a Blackpool lamp-post in 1976. "Now I can't get rid of the little bugger!"

Boxing clever

Entered fight game in 1987, promoting over 500 shows. Money-spinners have included Hamed v Barrera, Benn v Eubank and Bruno v Bugner. Latest round of his last-man-standing Prizefighter series is launched this week

Rich pickings

His million-dollar babies include darts, fishing and pool, which he sells to TV globally. Most lucrative, he says, is poker – he plans to broadcast tournaments live on radio. "It's explosive."

How wealthy is he?

"Let's put it this way," says former world snooker champion Dennis Taylor. "He once wrote a cheque and the bank bounced."